Incense: Shelling out money for the sweet smell of death


When I was in college, my hippie roommates pushed and pushed and finally got me addicted. My substance of choice wasn't LSD or marijuana, heroin or opium, but rather the tool that they used to banish the hemp smell from our home: incense.

In the beginning, I only used the occasional stick of incense, usually procured from the African nationalist guys on campus, who used my sense of liberal guilt as a tool for selling me pricey Bob Marley records and Malcolm X t-shirts. However, as my addiction got worse, I worked my way up to the hardcore stuff: loose grains of copal, myrrh, and frankincense sprinkled on a charcoal burner. As a former altar boy, there was something about the charcoal that gave me a smile, and the clouds of rich smoke were a great perfume for my place.

In retrospect, incense was doing more than just making my apartment smell like a Catholic church: it was, apparently, putting me at risk for cancer. According to an article that will be printed in the October 1, 2008 issue of CANCER, an extensive study of long-term incense users in China has determined that the sweet-smelling stuff significantly increases the chances of developing respiratory cancers. Apparently, in addition to producing beautiful aromas, incense also puts out several carcinogens, including hydrocarbons and benzene.

Admittedly, this is something of a no-brainer; after all, one of the major causes of lung cancer is tobacco tar that sticks to the respiratory tract. Many incenses are made from sticky tree resins which, when burned, produce particulate matter that sticks to everything. While more research clearly needs to be done on this matter, it seems pretty obvious that inhaling incense in an enclosed space is, at least for the time being, a silly thing to do. While researchers figure out how to make safe incense, try spending your money on a safe, mass-produced air freshener!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer,
blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Health scares aside, a Glade plug-in just doesn't have the same cachet as a huge bowl of smoking incense.